Friday, 24 August 2012

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first popped up on my reading radar during a first read of Blue Highways, where the author mentions packing this book to read as he travels around America. I’ve been curious since then as to why William Least-Heat Moon (yes, that’s his real name and his book I’ll review another time) chose this book in particular. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Leaves of Grass as an important book within the canon of American literature, and the controversial and lively debate surrounding its author - to the extent that Walt and Mark are the two people who adorn my Kindle cover. But it’s only the last few weeks that I’ve properly read Leaves from cover to cover.

Poetry is not a form of literature I’m at ease with. There’s cultural and upbringing reasons for this discomfort. Ironically when very young I won a national poetry competition, more as an act of rebellion against being told that culture such as literature, poetry, classical music and other “fine arts” wasn’t the kind of thing that people of “my type” (farming lower working class) should or could do. That was by the headmistress of the primary school I endured, but hopefully for many reasons she’s now burning in whatever kind of purgatory exists for people of “her type”.

Anyway, that’s why I’m not going to attempt to analyse Leaves of Grass; it’ll just read like some fumbling junior school literature review 101 essay. I’ll just write about what I read.

The edition I perused was a 1986 reprint of the 1959 Viking Press print of the original 1855 text, borrowed from Birmingham Central Library. The first version of Leaves, as Walt tweaked and fiddled about with it for the rest of his life, seemingly never happy with the body of work (typical Virgo, perhaps). The editor of this edition, Malcolm Cowley, added a lengthy introduction and analysis of his own which, for me, didn’t really add or shed any new light on the core work. It speaks for itself pretty well.

Walt Whitman - em Camden, 1891

Leaves is partially a kind of observation of America as it was 160 years ago, the people in it, what they do, how they go about their business. It’s also partially about the author, as a person, a human people, a physical and emotional being, and as an American. The second paragraph of the original work begins:
The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.
So I guess it’s interesting, not just from a literature perspective, but from a historical perspective. For example, there’s a rather graphic retelling of a retelling of the massacre at the Alamo (of the accuracy, we are not sure), of how people of trades travel around their country, of what they wear and what they eat. And there is mention, descriptions, of slaves and slavery; for example:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside, I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile, Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak, And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him … And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles; He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north, I had him sit next me at the table, my firelock leaned in the corner.
It’s a very person-based piece of work. There’s probably a deep and meaningful poetry phrase that means “person-based”, but that’ll do for me. And Americans, leading American lives, is the element that most reoccurs in the text; for example:
The deckhands make fast the steamboat, the plank is thrown for the shoregoing passengers. The cleanhaired Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill. The canal-boys trots on the towpath - the bookkeeper counts at his desk - the shoemaker waxes his thread A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings
Walt obviously takes pleasure in observing Americans being themselves, and makes no secret of this:
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
Speaking of observing women, Leaves of Grass was controversial in its day and for a long time thereafter because of the “explicit” nature of the work. It isn’t, of course, explicit in terms of the low-grade Internet pornography of today. But Walt doesn’t hide his often celebratory thoughts regarding the human body and nakedness, which appear frequently, or his musings about sex. To an extent that a subtext of Leaves of Grass could arguably be “I really want to get laid more”. For example:
Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight! We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.
Voices of sexes and lusts … voices veiled, and I remove the veil
I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself, And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips
Despite my lack of poetry experience, I did enjoy reading Leaves of Grass fully. It’s a collection of poems and texts that, for me anyway, has to be read in pretty much one go in order to get some kind of grasp on the work. It’s also useful as a historical timeline marker in the compressed, accelerated history of America. This work was published in the decade before the civil war, and less than 80 years after independence - but this is still recent enough that there are people alive today whose grandparents would have been alive then and would have recognised the America, and Americans, described by Walt. The relative “recent-ness” of the text, compared to European historical descriptive poetry which can be many centuries old, is what makes Leaves of Grass still easily readable, and the people and places within it recognisable.

Friday, 17 August 2012

American Gods

Even a few days after finishing it, I’m still not sure what to make of American Gods, and whether I really like it, or not.

This is the first book by Neil Gaiman, an author-hero to the library sector, that I’ve read. Hence, I’m not used to his writing style or subject matter, so this was a bit of a new experience.

It’s set in America (obviously) and, well, it’s difficult to say much without giving away spoilers. I’m also a little wary of the large and fanatical following for this book but, hey, nothing is liked by everyone. Not even chocolate.

The cover, and some other reviewers, have used the phrase ‘road trip’, but that’s a bit inaccurate. The action did move across several - though not many - places in the USA, and not always by road. A large chunk of the novel takes place in one town in Wisconsin which the received wisdom of people who have tried to identify where it is based on have settled on the authors home town (in real life).

The plot revolves around, erm, Gods. In America. Gods of many forms and shapes who have been brought to this (in some ways) new country by immigrants. And also newer gods, who express themselves in different ways (You may not watch “I love Lucy” in the same light again). The main character within is “Shadow”, an ex-prisoner who falls in with another bloke, “Wednesday”. Shadow I found disappointing and emotionally a bit detached, dulled. He rarely seemed surprised; in fact, possibly never. A case in point being the reappearance of his wife, where most people would have reacted in a different way. Shadow himself isn’t developed much as a person, and there’s hardly anything about it from childhood until when the novel starts. Then again, he’s probably not supposed to be a ‘main’ character, as the gods take a more central (and interesting) role in the book.

And there are many gods in the book, with the timeline moving around to fill in their back stories. Some fleshing out of a few of the human characters might have been better, especially Sam, the student and coffee shop barista from Madison. She was particularly under-developed and appeared at times merely as a plot movement device.

The book - which exists in several editions of varying length from ‘long’ to ‘sole Labor Day weekend read’ - is rich with metaphor, dream spaces, and the more considered forms of the human world(s) colliding with those of the supernatural. There’s also several good passages of writing. Sam, stuck in a car with someone who may or may not be a serial killer, elicits a long list, over several pages, of what she believes in:
"... I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste ... I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly ..."
And our hero - well, possibly not - the main character of the book thinks:
“He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while; or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough."
There’s several major plot twists near the end, of differing levels of surprise, which were a good reward for sticking with the book. Apart from the climactic scene, the last few chapters of the book were notched up a gear over the rest of the text which meandered off in places. There’s plenty of characters, a few somewhat unusual sex scenes, and some violence (though perhaps not as much as you’d expect).

The main problem I have with American Gods is that it seemed quite ... familiar. I’ve read a lot of Clive Barker over the years and still do, even though he’s progressively mellowing with age. And many of the concepts and ideas in American Gods are present in Clive’s books from previous decades, especially Weaveworld, Imajica, Everville and Coldheart Canyon. I’m (definitely) not saying that Gaiman has ripped off Barker; many of the concepts can be traced back to other literature, the foundations of gothic writing, and before. But if you’ve read a lot of Barker, then you’ll know what I mean.

This particular book is over a decade old. It shows, implicitly; several of the sequences and plot progressions wouldn’t happen now, due to the Internet. There’s apparently a film version of this at a very early, not yet turned into a screenplay, stage, as well as a sequel on the way at some point.

One personal thing about the novel that I liked was that several of the places within I’d heard about previously, and want to visit, but haven’t yet. For example, the town at the notional centre of America (found in the 1930s by balancing a giant cut-out of America on a pin until it balanced), and The House on the Rock, with its Infinity Room and world’s largest indoor carousel. And a few others that I won’t say for spoiler reasons.

The ending, too, may be a little anticlimactic for some. Though, oddly, the last location in the book is the place on the top of my list of places to visit which I haven’t been to yet. And, because of the history of that place, seemed the most plausible passage in the whole novel.

I look forward to reading more of Neil’s writing. Hopefully there’ll be something I can get a grip on better (people keep recommending Neverwhere and Stardust, so they may be next).

Overall: 7 out of 10. A good read, but not an original one.